An icon has passed. Legendary activist, educator and humanitarian Yuri Kochiyama, whose mentorship and fierce, lifelong dedication to justice inspired generations of movement makers, has died. According to her family, she passed away peacefully in her asleep on Sunday morning in Berkeley, California. She was 93.
Japanese-American Activist And Malcolm X Ally Dies At 93
Born Mary Yuriko Nakahara to Japanese immigrants in 1921, Kochiyama's life of radical activism was sparked as a young woman after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, when she and her family were among the thousands of Japanese Americans who were incarcerated by the U.S. government during World War II. Her experiences in the camps would later fuel her involvement in future struggles for racial justice.
Over the course of her life, Kochiyama forged a path as a key figure through numerous social and political movements, including the Black Liberation movement, the struggle for Puerto Rican independence, and redress for World War II internment. Even in her later years, she remained a vocal revolutionary in movements for political prisoner rights, nuclear disarmament, and justice for wartime sex slaves.
Perhaps most famously, Kochiyama shared a friendship with black nationalist and civil rights leader Malcolm X, and was by his side when he was gunned down at the Audubon Ballroom in 1965. In Diane C. Fujino's biography Yuri Kochiyama, Heartbeat of Struggle, Kochiyama recalled the day she first met Malcolm X:
"...Malcolm looked up and seemed to be looking right at me. He was probably wondering, 'Who is this old lady, and Asian at that.' I stepped forward and called out, 'Can I shake your hand?' He looked at me and demanded, 'What for?' I stammered back, 'I want to congratulate you.' And he asked, 'For what?' I was trying to think of what to say and said, 'For what you're doing for your people.' 'What's that?' he queried. 'For giving them direction.' He abruptly burst forth with that fantastic Malcolm smile and extended his hand. I grabbed it."
I first learned of Yuri Kochiyama in college, as a nascent scholar of Asian American studies. For one of my classes, we watched Renee Tajima-Pena's documentary My America (...or Honk If You Love Buddha), a road-movie exploration of multiple Asian American identities across the United States. In the film, Yuri and her husband Bill travel to Jerome, Arkansas to revisit the camp where they were interned -- and first met.
At that point, I actually knew nothing about this tiny Japanese silver-haired senior, but as I watched her story unfold onscreen, I realized how little I still knew about the pioneers of our community, about the Asian Americans who lived our history, long before most of us realized we had an Asian American history to study.
As I watched the Kochiyamas retrace their steps through the former site of their incarceration, what also struck me was how angry Yuri still remained about the injustice of internment. Not the kind of anger that eats away at you, but a powerful, righteous anger that guided her through the path of her extraordinary, revolutionary life. There was something about that, in spirit, that I wanted to challenge myself to be a part of.
Rest in peace, Yuri Kochiyama. Your life and legacy inspires generations.
I'll be spinning this track all day in your honor:
Some more links:
Yuri & Bill Kochiyama: On the Road in Mississippi
Yuri Kochiyama on her Internment in WWII Japanese American Detention Camp & Malcolm X Assassination
Not Just A 'Black Thing': An Asian-American's Bond With Malcolm X
Oakland: Inspired by Malcolm X, Asian American activist makes her own history
A Heart Without Boundaries - Part 1
A Heart Without Boundaries - Part 2
A Heart Without Boundaries - Part 3
UPDATE: Here's a statement from the Kochiyama Family on Yuri Kochiyama's passing:
Life-long activist Yuri Kochiyama passed away peacefully in her sleep in Berkeley, California on the morning of Sunday, June 1 at the age of 93. Over a span of more than 50 years, Yuri worked tirelessly for social and political change through her activism in support of social justice and civil and human rights movements. Yuri was born on May 19, 1921 in San Pedro, California and spent two years in a concentration camp in Jerome, Arkansas during World War II. After the war, she moved to New York City and married Bill Kochiyama, a decorated veteran of the all-Japanese American 442nd combat unit of the U.S. Army.
Yuri's activism started in Harlem in the early 1960's, where she participated in the Harlem Freedom Schools, and later, the African American, Asian American and Third World movements for civil and human rights and in the opposition against the Vietnam War. In 1963, she met Malcolm X. Their friendship and political alliance radically changed her life and perspective. She joined his group, the Organization of Afro-American Unity, to work for racial justice and human rights. Over the course of her life, Yuri was actively involved in various movements for ethnic studies, redress and reparations for Japanese Americans, African Americans and Native Americans, political prisoners' rights, Puerto Rican independence and many other struggles.
Yuri is survived by her living children -- Audee, Eddie, Jimmy and Tommy, grandchildren -- Zulu, Akemi, Herb, Ryan, Traci, Maya, Aliya, Christopher, and Kahlil and great-grandchildren -- Kai, Leilani, Kenji, Malia and Julia."